Man to Man - the basic defense

Notice: This article was written by Steve Jordan, Coach's Notebook. Email the author at

The man to man matchup is basketball in its purest form. If the players are well trained in fundamental defensive skills and are willing to work as hard as possible, their man to man defense will be be tough to beat. Even a team that is physically smaller can stymie their larger opponent by performing their individual defensive responsibilities with dogged determination. Sometimes, even though your team is the more athletic and appears to be working hard, the man to man defense simply doesn't work. Why does that happen? Here are some things to watch for:

  1. Fatigue When players tire, or for some reason are not motivated to put forth their best effort, their footwork becomes sloppy. Instead of slide-stepping in front of their opponent, they reach with their hands, stick out a knee or a hip or cross their feet. The result is that their man drives by them and forces the rest of the team to sacrifice their defensive positioning to help out. The solution is a substitution.
  2. Not Defending the Pass Your players are only working hard when their man has the ball. If defenders near the ball allow their man to receive a pass, then the ball handler is never really in trouble. The ball handler may not succeed in beating his defender, but that is no big deal if he can easily pass to a teammate. Man to man defense must include pass prevention. If the ball handler is stopped by his defender and can't pass the ball because everyone is covered, the defense achieves a significant advantage. If the defense isn't willing to prevent their man from receiving the ball, they are only doing half their job.
  3. Not Blocking Out Watch for players blocking out when the shots go up. If everyone's eyes are up on the ball as it arcs to the basket, you can be sure the offense is cutting around the defense to get better position for rebounds. You cannot afford to give your opponent extra shots.
  4. Defensive Switches Is the offense doing a good job of setting screens? Some teams use screens on the ball and away from the ball very effectively. A good screen usually requires the defense to make a switch. Eventually, switches result in a mismatch that may be exploited on a one on one situation, but usually the main problem is that eventually the switch doesn't occur. The offense momentarily has an unguarded player that gets an open shot.
  5. No Help The defensive players furthest from the ball have the responsibility to cover any defensive mistakes. Should a dribbler beat his man with a drive, or should a switch break down, the player(s) furthest from the ball are the last hope to protect the basket, even if they must leave their man in the process. If they are lucky, enough offensive delay can be created to allow for the defense to recover. On a more proactive note, players away from the ball are in a unique position to pick off passes lobbed over the immediate defenders.

Defensive Stance

Build your fundamentals from the feet up. You will need to demonstrate and practice a basic defensive stance before you can hope to implement effective team defense. If the players do not know these fundamental items, they will continually be compromised.

  1. Keep your feet as wide as your hips, or slightly wider.
  2. One foot should be slightly forward. Which one? Generally, the high foot will be the one nearest the center of the floor where your help defense is. Or, if you are playing an opponent that is strong with one hand, the high foot would be towards his weak side.
  3. Knees should be clearly bent. Straight people are stiff and easy to drive around. Keep your butt down.
  4. Stay on the balls of your feet and be ready to shift direction.
  5. Use slide steps to move laterally. Don't cross your feet unless to need to run to catch up.
  6. The back should be fairly straight. Players who lean forward have a hard time moving backward against a ball handler.
  7. Don't reach or slap at the ball. Keep your palms up when the hands are low. If the dribbler stops, one hand should mirror the ball, the other should stay high to block vision.
  8. Don't watch the ball handler's eyes or you will be misdirected. Concentrate on the belly button. Where the belly button goes, the player goes.

Positioning Tips

Positioning is crucial in the man to man defense. Here are the primary rules to teach your kids:

  1. Stay between the offensive player and the basket. Force your opponent to go around you to get to the basket.
  2. Keep both your man and the ball in sight at all times. Its helpful to point one hand at the man, one at the ball, because your body alignment will change properly.
  3. If your opponent insists on dribbling, herd him/her to the closest corner of the court, sideline or toward your teammates who can help.
  4. Ballhandler has not dribbled yet
  5. Ballhandler picks up dribble (anywhere on court)
  6. If your man is one pass away, keep the hand closest to the ball in the passing lane. Do NOT let your man receive an easy pass. If the ball handler has an easy pass, he is never under any pressure. Do not lose sight of your man, ever.
  7. If your man is two passes away, keep one foot in the key. This will enable you to help if a teammate gets beat on a drive. Do not lose sight of your man.
  8. If your man is more than two passes away from the ball, put both feet in the key. Don't relax. As soon as the ball is passed, your man will no longer be 2 passes away!

Teach your players to play man to man defense, even if your primary defensive strategy is using a zone. It is very useful to change defenses throughout the game. Your players will have greater success in the future if they learn their man to man skills early, not just with future coaches, but in all the basketball they play throughout their lives.